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Hell in Haiti

By John Njoroge

How would Uganda handle an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude?

When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the strongest felt in the western hemisphere since 1965, ripped through Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on Jan.12, it devastated its infrastructure and destroyed the lives of thousands of its inhabitants.

Up to 90 percent of the capital Port-au-Prince was flattened. Even the president is homeless after the presidential palace, built in 1914, was decimated. By the morning of Wednesday January 13h, the UN had mobilised 37 search and rescue teams from its global network.

Those who escaped unharmed were in constant fear as numerous aftershocks hit the capital on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

International journalist who arrived in the capital a few hours after the earthquake reported seeing numerous bodies lying amidst collapsed buildings. In a spirit of solidarity, Haitians, with no help in sight, mobilised each other and began digging through the debris for survivors.

As fate would have it, even the helpers were helpless. Humanitarian organizations stationed in Haiti like the World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations (UN) failed to respond effectively to the disaster after their staff too also suffered the effects of the devastating quake. Their offices were reduced to rubble and many could not account for the whereabouts of most of their staff.

Kampala scenario

Can such a disaster happen in Kampala?

It can happen anywhere, even in Kampala,” Disaster Preparedness minister Tarsis Kabwegyere told The Independent. “Are we very far from the rift valley? How was it formed? Kampala would be totally destroyed if such an earthquake hit us. Most buildings here are not built to withstand earthquakes. Many are substandard.”

Earthquake safety tips

Tips to manage earthquakes

Train everyone to turn off gas, water, and electricity.

Have emergency procedures for work and home. Include assembling points.

Know your emergency telephone numbers (doctor, hospital, police)

Anchor heavy objects to walls (bookcases, wall units, mirrors, cabinets, etc.)

Never place heavy objects over beds, and keep heavy objects lower than head height of shortest member of family.

During an earthquake,

Stay calm

Inside, stand in doorway, or crouch under a desk or table

Stay away from windows or glass dividers.

Outside, stand away from buildings, trees, telephones and electrical lines.

On the road, stop in safe area; stay in vehicle.

After an earthquake

Check for injuries-provide first aid.

Do safety-check for gas, water, sewage breaks; check for downed power lines and shorts; turn off appropriate utilities.

Check for building damage and potential problems during aftershocks.

Clean upÂ

Wear shoes

Turn on the radio and listen for instructions from public safety agencies.

Use telephone for emergencies, only.

From InternetÂ

“Uganda is prone to earthquakes,” Booker Ajuoga, an executive member of the Uganda Seismic Safety Association (USSA) told The Independent, “It has had several, especially in western Uganda, the last of which was slightly lower than the one that hit Haiti.”  The Kabarole area in western Uganda, which lies along the western rift valley area, was hit by a 6.5 magnitude quake just two years ago. Booker says the impact of an earthquake varies with terrain and infrastructure. “If an earthquake hit Karamoja, the damage would be minimal because the infrastructure up there is minimal.”

USSA isn NGO funded by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) that raises awareness of seismic activity in Uganda.   The association is also affiliated to the World Seismic Safety Initiative which provided information on seismic activities in a bid to have safe cities around the world.

The energy released by the Haiti earthquake was approximately equivalent to seven megatons of TNT or about 7000 times as powerful as Little Boy, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War on August 6, 1945 that killed 140,000 people and destroyed 70 percent of the city’s buildings. Most of the dreaded nuclear bombs in the US arsenal today are about 100 times smaller than Little Boy.

So if a Haiti scenario occurred in Kampala, what would be the likely outcome? The Uganda Bureau of Statistics figures show that Kampala has about 1.5 million people (2008 figures) or the same number of people as the Haiti capital Port au Prince.  With an estimated national population growth rate of 3.1% per year and an estimated rural-urban migration of 200, 000 people per year, (most of who come to Kampala) Kampala’s current population could be a little over 2 million inhabitants.

Half of this population is normally found within the confines of the city centre between 9am and 4pm every weekday. If an earthquake the size of the one that hit Haiti, hit Kampala one afternoon, at least 1.5 million (this is excludes the numerous visitors to the city) people would be in harms way. Eleven major storied buildings in the city centre would be destroyed. Each of these buildings has an average of between 500 and 2000 people, according to the estate managers of some these buildings, who spoke to The Independent.

Also affected would be eight major shopping complexes, each with human traffic of between 200-1000 people every hour, plus, a constant presence of at least 800 people at any one time. This makes a total average of 30, 000 people at any one time in these buildings. 90 percent of the rest of the buildings in the city centre and those in the surrounding suburbs would be flattened.

“If this happened in Kampala, we are doomed,” according to Booker adds. “To begin with, Ugandans do not take seismic issues seriously; it is like a joke to most of them. Building standards are not strictly adhered to that’s why simple rain brought down several construction sights in 2008.”

Emergency plan

A survey conducted by The Independent across Kampala to ascertain what Kampala has in terms of disaster relief and rescue equipment indicated that the 25 private and public mini and referral hospitals in Kampala have a total of 41 ambulances between them.

This is in addition to three helicopters; two from police and one from the UPDF and four fire engines from the fire department of the police in Kampala and one each in the neighbouring areas of Jinja and Masaka. The only other towns with firefighting trucks, Mbarara, Mbale, and Tororo, are likely too far away to respond quickly to an emergency.

Port-au-Prince is no different from Kampala. By Sunday Jan. 17, news media had unsubstantiated reports of over 200, 000 people unaccounted for. The International Red Cross had earlier estimated the number of dead at between 45,000 to 50, 000. Many were either feared trapped under rubble or dead. An estimated total of 3 million Haitians had no shelter. Many gathered in Port-au-Prince’s parks where they slept on the ground or under makeshift tents. 40,000 bodies had been recovered and buried in mass graves.

It would be fair to say that since Haiti, although very poor, is located in the rich western hemisphere, it started receiving help rather quickly, just 12 hours after the catastrophe.

How long then would it take for Uganda to get help?

Booker is optimistic that the response would be sufficient.  “In such scenarios, the world comes together very quickly. Countries forget their difference and help each other because it can happen anywhere in the world. Am sure the world would respond to Uganda quickly if we were hit.”

About the level of assistance, Booker says humanitarian organisations would provide the same level of help as it is provided anywhere else. “Humanitarian services are the same. Proximity to them differs, that is why it comes in different forms in different nations. The media, military, doctors, everybody will have to do their part to help one another. It is important however to heed warning signs whenever they are given.”

Commenting on the Haitian reaction, Kabwegyere says there is little that could have done to forestall the devastation from the earthquake other than evacuating Port-au-Prince.

“Did you see the area around the epicenter? Such earth movements cannot be stopped. What if all this oil extraction around the world had an effect on tectonic layers?  Some scientists are relating the eclipse which we experienced recently to the Haitian quake.”

He said the only way to effectively prepare for a catastrophe of such a magnitude is putting up structures (buildings) that can withstand such huge earth movements.

What would be the emergency response in the case what appears to be an impossible to avoid disaster occurred?

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